Tag Archives: 3 Smiles and a Struggle

3 Smiles and A Struggle: 100 days of yoga, Visitors, The girls workshop, and What’s Next

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June was a joyful whirlwind of a month for us, as seems to be the theme of this second year of Peace Corps. I was lucky to go into this busy time feeling solid and well-grounded. The reason was that on June 8, the day before our lives got a little crazy, I completed 100 days of yoga. The 100 days of yoga was something that I had decided to challenge myself to after completing a 30 day yoga challenge in March and feeling really darn good by the end. The whole idea had come about as a way  to start getting back into shape and bring back at least some of the health that I felt like I lost during the first year of Peace Corps. The 100 days did just that, and more. My daily time spent doing yoga became my guaranteed Cece time, to take care of me. What a comfort this was! The challenge also brought about the realization that it is definitely possible to find time every day  for intentional movement and self-care. There were a number of days that I was certain I did not have time for yoga that day but, in the interest of not bungling my  whole challenge, had to find the time. In the end, I found it each and every day, even if it was just ten minutes spent in legs up the wall or a gentle stretch after getting over a stomach bug. I came out of the challenge feeling strong mentally and physically, and full of smiles for this and for having accomplished my goal.

 

A lot of smiles this month came from having visitors. Our first visitor was one of our best friends, Sarah. Sarah was in the Peace Corps in Tanzania from 2010 to 2012 and visiting her at her Peace Corps site was a big part of our Kenya/ Tanzania trip in 2012. In fact, this was the first time that I remember thinking, ‘We could do something like this. We could definitely do Peace Corps.’ From the moment we told her we were going to Peace Corps, she was set on visiting us and seeing our site. You may recall that we met Sarah and our friends Liesel and Jared and Victoria Falls for New Year’s. At the time, they were on a quick 3 week trip in this part of the world. Because of visa costs and time factors, they didn’t visit Mapinhane. However, soon after, Sarah got a job in Tanzania for June and July. She immediately began scheming to visit us here in Mapinhane first. So, we are beyond lucky to have received not one but two visits on the African continent from such a good pal. We spent our short week with Sarah soaking up the sun in Vilanculos, stand-up paddle-boarding, and enjoying perhaps more seafood in one sitting than we have in the last year combined. We then headed to Mapinhane, where Sarah tagged along to class with us- just as we had with her 5 years ago- hit it off with our beloved adult-learners at Adult English Club, sat in front of approximately 40 pairs of staring eyes while I read to primary school students at the library, labored through making Matapa, and got the first-ever full tour of the 7 Wonders of Mapinhane (detailed post coming soon).

We saw Sarah within the last 6 months of her service, when a PCV seems to be constantly oscillating between anxiety and impatience regarding the future, and nostalgia for and weariness toward their country of service. I remember her at that time, thick-skinned and mildly irritated half the time, and downright revelatory the other half. She too, visited us at this same point in our service.

In a week’s time, it felt like something in our friendship with Sarah had come full circle: we visited her Peace Corps site, where the seed of the idea of doing Peace Corps was planted, only to have her visit our Peace Corps site almost exactly 5 years later, and find us in, probably, a similar state to where she was herself at this point 5 years ago.

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We parted ways on opposite sides of the highway that runs through Mapinhane: Alex and Sarah heading north to Vilanculos, where she would catch her flight out, and me heading south the Tofo, with 4 female students from school.

This brings us to the next smile: this year’s REDES workshop. You may remember a bit about REDES, and about being a female from Mozambique, from my post after the workshop last year. REDES stands for “Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação, e Saude,” or ‘Girls in Development, Education, and Health.’ The program is a curriculum of 15 meetings, designed for adolescent girls and covering subjects like good communication, healthy friendships, goals for the future, puberty, reproductive health, HIV, and much more. Last year, I never got a group up and running at school, but was continually nudged by my amazing counterpart, a 12th grader at school named Marizia,to keep trying.

So, this year, the two of us finally got a group of 8th grade girls together that meets twice a month. Each year, Peace Corps Moz puts on regional workshops for REDES, and other such youth groups, in which leaders bring a few of their group members to meet other groups from the region and do more intensive learning about the topics covered in regular meetings. The workshops help create a strong network between the participants; Marizia still talks with a lot of the participants she met last year. They are also meant to be a type of mini-camp, reminiscent in some ways of weekend Girl Scout getaways. There’s a lot of singing, dancing, game-playing, and pillow talk.

This year’s REDES workshop was one of my favorite things that I have done during my Peace Corps service so far. I was so impressed with the PCVs who organized the event; it was dynamic, fun, productive, and full of a constant, buzzing energy. The group facilitators got to work with girls in small groups, for an extended time to talk more in-depth about topics like HIV, puberty, menstruation, and life skills. This led to a lot of great discussion and participation between the girls. The girls amazed us with theatrical performances on the last day, centered around things like higher education and drug and alcohol use. We also played A LOT. The girls and facilitators seemed to always have a song or game in their back pockets, and we spent some time one evening doing Zumba as a big group.

After an awesome and exhausting 3 days, the groups cleared out pretty quick to travel home after breakfast on the last day. All was quiet, and the beach in front of our accommodation was deserted.

“Teacher, vamost mergulhar!” my girls proclaimed. ‘Teacher, let’s swim!’

Having arrived later than expected on the first day, the girls hadn’t had as much free time at the beach as I would have hoped. There was free time here and there during the days of the workshop, during which there would be a mass exodus of girls headed for the beckoning sea just 2 minutes away. Still, I could tell my girls wanted more, and I had promised them some uninterrupted, free time on the beach before our journey home.

There are moments here when I see joy that is so uninhibited, all I can do is watch and try to soak it up in hopes that it will settle into me. This kind of joy isn’t fleeting; once you’ve seen it, you have it with you. A brilliant early morning sun rendered the girls silhouettes as I watched them, at first, jumping waves, laughing, and running from the surge of foamy water. Claenencia, tiny in stature but bursting with a sassy sense of humor, had never seen the ocean before and her string of giggles as she clung to my side were like bubbling purs of a happy kitten. Artezia, always quiet but with a look of contemplation, knowledge and strength, ventured a bit further, holding the hand of Meyvis. And Meyvis.

“Meyvis!” I reveled at her. “O seu coração…está no mar!” ‘Your heart is in the ocean.’

Meyvis often looks serious, angry or irritated even. I see her this way in class and in our REDES meetings, and I saw her like this all weekend. I’ve learned, though, that she isn’t usually angry or irritated. I will have seen her looking this way, and then later overhear her telling her friends how happy she was about whatever it was that was happening when she was glaring, sullenly, from the corner. Although I know this, seeing her smile, seeing her joy come out as she played among the waves was enough to make me smile and laugh too.

In the waves, Meyvis couldn’t stop beaming and laughing. She watched the waves like they were alive, deciding her next move among them, experimenting with a little bit of swimming.

Before too long, I had waded out with the girls. Artezia and Meyvis wanted to do more than jump waves, they said. They wanted to learn to swim. Laying belly down on the sand, I demonstrated the motion of swimming. They practiced. “Consegui!” ‘I succeeded!’ Meyvis told me. Watching them splutter as the water splashed into their faces, I taught them how to hold their breath. They took turns practicing, floating, face down in the water, holding my hands while the water sloshed them around the shallows. ‘Consegui!’ Meyvis beamed after a few rounds. I showed her how to blow bubbles out her nose. She practiced, coming up with her eyes closed, spitting water as she told me “Consegui Teacher!”

“Vamos para lá!” she said next, pointing east to the breaking waves. ‘Let’s go THERE!’

A few times, while they played on the beach or splashed in the shallows, I swam out into the waves alone, diving under them. Now, Meyvis wanted to go.

I explained to her first the principle of diving under the waves. If you are under them, I told her, everything is calm and they can’t batter you. If you stay above the water, that’s when the waves batter you.

We swam out a bit, not as far as I had gone, holding hands the whole way. I told her I would say when to dive under. We watched the waves growing, rolling under the water, before cresting and breaking.

“Agora!” I shouted as one approached us. ‘Now!’

We dove under, and she came up laughing out loud. Again, again, again we dove under.

“Consegui!” She kept telling me.

More then two hours had passed by now, and I practically had to drag them out of the ocean. The busy and productive weekend, seeing their pure joy, and having the chance myself to be free and play left me full to the brim.

 

 

It was also during this REDES workshop weekend that we received our second group of visitors. In fact, this group, Alex’s mom, aunt, uncle, and aunt’s mom, had ended up at the same beach at which the REDES workshop was being held, and were there when I arrived.  They are in southern Africa for two months, completing a big loop that was spurred by coming to visit us in Moz. Because their travel is so long, it is also very flexible, and some switching of plans is what led them to Tofo beach at the same time that I was to be there. Between the activities of the workshop, I was catching up with them, trying to make up for the 20 or so months since last seeing them.

From the REDES workshop, we all traveled back to Mapinhane together, where our family spent a few days tagging along to school with us, meeting all our favorite people and, again, laboring for their Matapa.  Our time with them was rich and satisfying. Just simply having the time to spend together, chatting and catching up, around the dinner table was more special than anything else we could have done.

As we try to prepare for our last leg of Peace Corps service, it’s stuff like this that fills the tank, gives us the energy to finish strong. As if the time spent catching up and hanging out with people we love wasn’t enough, having visitors also meant getting to experience the strange kind of magic that happens when you see your Peace Corps service through new eyes, as a visitor sees it.

For the second week in a row, our service got to be new and fresh again, perhaps more so with Alex’s family than with Sarah, who could draw a lot of similarities to her own service. Suddenly,  the things that are normal to us now seemed a bit adventurous once again: chickens on the bus, people who think you’re just another tourist mulungu, the energy of a Mozambican vegetable market. The slow pace of life that we have adapted to felt fleeting and precious: nearly nothing runs by a clock and we nearly never have too little time to stop and chat with someone. Our uncertainty about progress in our work got put on pause to the compliments of someone seeing it from the outside: it’s an accomplishment to teach with nothing more than a blackboard and chalk, and do it in another language, it’s impressive to manage 45 8th graders at the same time, it’s incredible to see the confidence of our adult English learners as they read aloud. The friendships and sense of community that we are used to were marveled at: we pick Matapa leaves off our bread vendor’s trees, there’s a give and take of resources between people in the community , and some days we can’t get through a full sentence while we walk through town without the calling of one of our names interrupting. In just a few short days, all of these re-realizations were a reminder of what a special and unique time this is for us.

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Alex’s fam at Adult English Club.

While the presence of visitors has the ability to really ground us in the present and let us observe our service as they do, it also brings about lots of questions about life after Peace Corps, which seems to be barreling toward us at a somewhat frightening rate. This struggle is twofold. First, our visitors reminded us what life in the States is like. Yes, some days it feels like we’ve forgotten what it feels like to live in the States, as strange as that sounds. But it seems there is no better way to remember than spending time with Americans straight out of America. Over the course of our two weeks with visitors, we noticed a number of American tendencies that now seem to be less a part of our life than they once were: an attachment to schedules and plans; an unbridled optimism towards problems and the presentation of solutions in the form of “Why  don’t you just…..” statements; and a probably normal but high-for-us standard of hygiene and cleanliness of self, home, and possessions, as seen in Sarah’s diligent sweeping of ants off the outside of our house and Alex’s aunt’s suggestion-before seeing them and realizing they may never have been cleaned properly- that we clean our shared toilets with baking soda and vinegar. Needless to say, our response to both: “Not worth it….” All of these little things remind us of what’s next in our life, of all the things about American life that we will have to re-remember and re-adapt to .

The other side of the “What’s Next” struggle comes in the answer to the question, “What’s next?” The answer is this: We don’t know.

We do not begrudge our visitors for bringing to light the fact that it’s time to start thinking about the future. Not at all. With or without the presence of visitors, trying to answer this question, if only for ourselves, has certainly been a struggle lately. It’s not that we haven’t thought about it, it’s more that we just still don’t know. We know it’s time to think about it. We know that ‘having a plan’ is the thing that’s supposed to come next. We know that some of the PCVs in our group are already there and lots of others aren’t. Perhaps it’s in realizing how much less attached we have become to long-term plan-making. Perhaps it’s that life in Moz has drilled in to us a sense that most things are utterly unpredictable, and, subsequently, left us mildly resigned from any attempt at control. Or perhaps it’s that our whole sense of time here has slowed waaaaayyy down, meaning that our five remaining months still feel like a lot of time. But more than any of this, I think it’s that, for all of the ideas and dreams and schemes that we have thought about for life post-Moz, committing to anything feels like a weird betrayal, like Moz is already in the back of our minds as we jump ahead to the next plan. Every time we try to make a set plan for how the next year or so of our life will look, it feels horrible and forced and completely unnatural. Right now, we don’t want to be planning our next big chapter. We want to be in this chapter, because we know this time is going to fly and we know we will never have anything remotely like it again.

I know that all of these changes will reverse, to some degree, one day. I know that we will once again become plan-,makers, even if it’s to a lesser degree. I know that life one day may feel slightly more predictable, whether or not we will like that, I don’t know. I know that some day I will probably try to regain a sense of control on things, but maybe it will never be to the level that I tried before. I know that it won’t be long before our sense of time changes again and 5 months feels like nothing instead of an eternity. These are products of the culture you are surrounded by.  Although we didn’t know it 2 years ago, these changes were inevitable in coming here, and their reversal is inevitable in our return. And I know that we’ll find a balance, eventually, of enjoying our last months here and thinking about what’s to come.

But for now, ‘What’s Next’ is nothing more than the hours that will pass today: going for a run on my favorite path, hoping that bread comes in to the market from Vilanculos, and cooking up a hearty dinner.

We have 5 more months to enjoy a life that’s this simple, and that’s what’s next on the list of things to do.

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3 Smiles and A Struggle: Getting Strong, Looking Forward, Balance, and The Slumps

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The smiles and struggles are broad this time around, grouping the many happenings since the last time I wrote here. It feels overwhelming, after such an extended silence, to pick through all the little moments and choose just a few. So I thought instead about themes and patterns that might give a sense of what’s been going on lately.

One big theme and a hugely positive aspect of life in Moz lately has been my commitment to getting strong and feeling healthy again. Having arrived in Moz in probably the best shape of my life, I have struggled repeatedly here with the feeling of falling out of shape, of not having sufficient recreation to keep my strength up, of finding a steady work out routine in a schedule that is different every day, and with feeling healthy overall. On March 1 I committed to a 30 day Yoga Challenge from a YouTuber – SarahBeth Yoga. I completed the 30 days without missing a day and I marveled at that feeling of accomplishment and my own noticeably growing strength. For a couple weeks afterwards I continued to practice every day and play with the idea of challenging myself to 100 days of yoga, a feat that sounded nearly ridiculous or weirdly excessive at the time. But finally I decided to commit to that personal challenge as well. So, here I am on day 75. I have yet to miss a day, even if it was as simple as gentle stretching after being sick, spending 30 minutes playing in tree pose on the beach, or an easy 10 minutes in various legs-up-the-wall poses after a long day. After 18 of the most challenging months of my life, being intentional about taking time for my body and mind every single day has been one of the best things I have done for myself here. In addition, the long struggle with my fitness and health, and the mental turmoil it caused me, has solidified for me how much of a value health is for me. I need to feel strong. I need to feel healthy. And I need to do the things that make me feel that way.

The second smile these days comes in looking forward. In the next few weeks I will work with my library counterpart to hold our second literacy training for teachers at the primary school. The first training happened in March and I was so impressed with my Mozambican counterpart, who had the idea of the training and followed through with planning and organizing it and, finally, delegating tasks to me to help him carry out the training for 11 teachers.

In addition, I will work with my REDES group counterpart to plan and carry out an all-school workshop for girls at our school. REDES is a group for adolescent girls that covers topics regarding physical health, healthy relationships, and education. This year, I have worked with a 12th grade female student to hold meetings twice a month for ten 8th grade girls at our school. The program is designed for smaller groups, but we have had interest from so many other girls that we decided to hold 2 or 3 all-school workshops this year for any girl who wants to attend and participate in some of the activities that we do at our regular meetings.

After these events happen, we will be receiving visitors for a couple of weeks and are of course looking forward to that! In early June, one of our best friends, Sarah, will come to see us here in Mapinhane. This visit feels extra unique because it was during our visit to Sarah’s Peace Corps site in Tanzania in 2012 that the idea of doing Peace Corps together first seemed plausible to us. We met Sarah and two other friends at Victoria Falls for New Year’s and now she is headed back to this side of the world for a summer job in Tanzania, and has decided to stop through and see our Peace Corps site first.

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Me, Alex, and Sarah near her Peace Corps site in Tanzania in 2012.

A couple days after she leaves us, we will get a long-awaited visit from Alex’s mom, uncle, aunt, and aunt’s mom. As we have not gone home during our Peace Corps service, it has been a very long time since we’ve seen most of our family and we are looking so forward to seeing family before our last stretch of service. This gang of visitors will also visit us here in Mapinhane and then we plan to meet up with them in South Africa a few weeks later,  toward the end of their trip.I can’t wait for them to get a sense of our day to day life here, and to just have time to catch up face to face.

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Looking forward to a visit from Alex’s mom and fam!

With this flurry of events and visitors and travels, I know the time from now to mid-August is going to go by like the blink of an eye. By then, we’ll be looking at the last three months of our service. Not sure how to feel about that, but looking forward to everything in between now and then.

The final smile these last months has been an overall feeling of balance. Most of what has made me smile during Peace Corps has not really been tangible accomplishments, things I can check off a list, or say I “did.” Mostly what makes me smile is hearing “Teacher Cecelia!” shouted to me as a greeting from some hidden corner of a shop as I walk to the market, or having friends over for dinner so they can try American food, or spending countless hours chatting about every day things with people, or someone saying that Adult English Club is their favorite place in Mapinhane, or expressing how much they will miss us when we go in six months. These are the things we will grasp at later, wondering if it really happened the way we remember because there will be no proof other than how we remember these bright everyday moments. This being said, more so than last year, I have started to notice, along with the intangible smiles, tangible accomplishments that fill me up too. I smile about accomplishments in the classroom, like finding a positive behavior system to implement or teaching my “homeroom” group of kids a few important life skills. I smile about getting a REDES group off the ground, and watching as young girls start to open up and speak about important things in their lives. I smile about the teacher training at the library and the slow but definite progress of my counterpart taking ownership of that project. I smile about having helped facilitate sessions at a training for the newer group of volunteers that arrived last September. In this way, it seems that a balance has been struck between the intangible and tangible parts of our service.

Finding balance 😉

Finally the struggle lately has been a struggle with accepting and understanding ‘the slumps.’ There are so many ups and downs during Peace Corps service that they even give us a pretty darn accurate flow chart, depicting which months we will feel high periods, low periods, and plateaus. In fact, I’ve posted a picture of that chart here before…I feel that the Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment pretty much gets me. It seems like nonsense, because there are always ups and downs in life, whether or not you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer. I can say with certainty that because of how foreign daily life can feel in a foreign country, the ups and downs during service are extreme and visceral and always teach you a kind of hard lesson. Whether it’s ups and downs of motivation level, actual busy-ness, health, homesickness, sense of accomplishment, or various other factors, sometimes this rollercoaster feels never ending.

While the valleys don’t feel nearly as deep this year as they did last year, it can still be a challenge to accept a slump when it comes. A few weeks ago, after a week-long break from school, I felt a major slump in motivation setting in. The feeling of not really wanting to do any of the things that I had to do, of not having any new ideas or any energy for work was certainly reminiscent of times last year, which usually ended up being pretty big slumps and pretty deep valleys that were emotionally tedious to climb out of. Fearing the slump, I found myself resisting my lack of motivation, pushing myself to try and plan things, think of new ideas, keep going when I had no energy to keep going. For me, managing a slump can be tricky business. For me personally, taking whole days off or out of my normal routine makes the slump worse, even though that’s usually what I want to do instinctually. Getting out of my routine here just makes the slump that much worse, the valley that much harder to climb out of as I try to restore my basic routine along with any motivation that goes beyond that bare minimum routine. Knowing that about myself, the struggle is to find a balance between the helpful and important ‘keep on keepin on’ mindset and giving myself permission to do less, to not force new ideas or plans or energy when I feel a little ‘low,’ and to trust that it will all come back around, naturally, in time. It is fear of losing my momentum here that makes me want to instinctually push back and ignore a feeling of low energy or low motivation. Seeing life as being linear, it is easy for me to make assumptive connections that a lack of motivation now means a loss of momentum down the line. However, having been through a number of slumps during Peace Corps service, I am slowly starting to believe that life is cyclical, not linear. I never quite trusted it last year, but I can usually convince myself now that all things come back around, cycle back through. It helps me to think of my own internal environment as being like the seasons. I have Spring times, when I am bursting with fresh ideas and energy. I have Summer times when all those ideas and energy come to fruition, I have Autumn times when I can reflect on what’s happened and start to slow down. And I have Winter times, when things lie dormant and rest. Thinking this way makes a “slump” feel more like a  natural and crucial time of rest, and a perfectly normal part of the cycle. It helps me know what I need to do for myself, depending on which ‘season’ I am in. It forces me to be patient and observant and accepting. And it gives me a change of pace to look forward to, eventually.

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3 Smiles and A Struggle: The 2nd Year Feeling, The People Around Me, Normalcy, and Fearing the End

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‘I’m not afraid anymore! You hear me? I’m not afraid anymore!’

I left the second day of school on Tuesday, chuckling to myself as these words, originally spoken by Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, drifted into my head. No, the thought was not spurred, as it was for Kev, by scary burglars outside my house and a plan to blow torch their scalps and zipline away to my treehouse. It was spurred by a feeling of elation as I realized how comfortable I had just been in front of my 8th graders.  Not quite as exciting, really, but kind of a big moment for me.

Big kids used to scare me perhaps as much as Marv and Harry scared little Kevin at first.

Before coming to Mozambique, I had worked with children from about 1-11 years old in preschool and elementary school settings. They loved me, mostly, and thought I was super cool. That felt good. Big kids, on the other hand, seemed to stare into the souls of their poor teachers, ticked off and rarely complimentary. So, when I came to work in a secondary school here I was at once excited for the Big Kid experience and intimidated by them. Although I didn’t think I was afraid of them last year, looking back I know I was. They were new creatures to me; I didn’t understand their habits or what their looks meant or what motivated them or much of what they even needed from me as a teacher and as an adult in their lives. But I learned a lot along the way.

I’m no sage now, but I know enough to at least not be scared of the big kids. So, the first smile is about the 2nd-year-feeling. For me, this has two sides.

The first side is this: Since graduating college almost five years ago, I have switched jobs every year. While I am ultimately glad that I have dabbled as much as I have, and while I feel that I learned immensely from each job, it was an incredible feeling to start this, my first 2nd year in any job ever. It was amazing to not feel like the new person, to know at least the basics of what is going on and what is expected of me, to understand the routines of this job and how to accomplish what needs to be done, and to feel a level of general comfort that I have never felt before in a work environment.

The second side of this feeling is the sense of disbelief and accomplishment that we are actually starting our 2nd year of Peace Corps Service. While many days of the first year dragged by slowly, and while so many chunks of time felt filled up with little more than struggling through, I stand at this point, this marker of an end and a beginning, and it feels like that first year flew by. Because of the moments of wanting to throw my hands up and go home, of feeling lost, and generally unwell, I am now starkly aware of being so glad that we stayed for this second year.

Along the lines of feeling this lovely comfort on the work side of my service, the second smile comes in noticing the comfort and connectedness with our community. After spending most of our summer break away, we are settling back into life in Mapinhane now and, although they might not know it, the people around us are making it easy. The moments of interacting with all the people here who we have formed relationships with make it feel like we are picking up right where we left off. Some of these moments leave me smiling about people’s motivation: a student from last year asking that I continue to give him extra English work like I did last trimester, my library counterpart asking me if we will work there again, my 12th-grade REDES counterpart coming over to ask when we are starting our girl’s group, a colleague telling me he wants to do a student English Club this year, the start back to Adult English Club. The other moments are those that I have come to appreciate so much, the ones that make me feel a part of this community: a parent and fellow teacher coming over to say her son is excited to have me as a teacher, a friend bringing us food from her garden, Marcia telling me not to be nervous with my students, and the greetings and easy conversation with last year’s students.

With these first two smiles, there comes a realization that life here feels normal now. It is normal to have friends and students stopping by. It is normal to spend an hour getting to the market 5 minutes away because of stopping to chat with people along the way. It is normal that our class schedule will inevitably change 5ish more times. It’s normal to be pulled in many directions and wear many different hats each day. It’s normal and ok to not understand what’s going on sometimes. It’s even normal to feel sweaty all the time. Whether it’s in relishing the wonderful ‘new-normal’ moments, or in learning how to better handle the frustrating ‘new-normal’ moments, it’s a bit mind boggling to realize how much change a person can get used to over time. And thus comes the third smile: for not feeling so much like a lost foreigner anymore.

Finally, with all these happy feelings bouncing around lately, my struggle is in fearing the end. As I wrote about previously, it took a real long time for me to feel mostly comfortable here because it took a real long time to form all of these delightful abovementioned routines and relationships, and these are the things that most satisfy me here. Although there were many happy moments and successes personally and professionally throughout the months, I don’t think my mind and heart really settled in Moz until about last October. So now, with less than 12 months left, I am having mild sad feelings that the end seems in sight just as it is getting so good, and mild fear that the time is going to pass so quickly that I won’t be able to properly soak it up. The real struggle is in reminding myself how much can happen and change in a year’s time-as proven by the past year, and by life in general- and in reminding myself how much more is still yet to come and how many inevitable ups and downs there will be along the way.  The strategy for combatting fear of the future: continuing to actively notice good little moments each day, and in deciding to take notice being able to savor them.

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3 Smiles and A Struggle: The Note, The Global Gallery, Library Hours, and Knowing More

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The struggle this week comes first. It began with low muttering from two adult males. I could tell by the tone that it wasn’t threatening, but wasn’t something I would want to hear and I didn’t feel the strength to face something ugly head-on that day. I tuned out, thankful in this case that my level of Portuguese still doesn’t allow me to hear hushed comments unless I choose to, and listen well. Usually I choose to listen, I choose to allow the ‘unintentional ignorance’ of living in a foreign culture to be chipped away slowly by painful realities.

It happens fairly often. Something happens that I may not have noticed some months ago, maybe because I didn’t have the language yet or didn’t perceive the tone or didn’t pick up on the cultural cues. Something makes itself clear, and it hurts.

I see a girl with less opportunity than a boy, which shows itself in many subtle forms.

I hear more hisses and comments from creepy men.

I hear the kids at school calling each other stupid in slang, or calling themselves stupid.

A kid tells me they don’t want to upset ‘so and so’ teacher because he will hit them.

I realize that all of the adults in a students’ life have passed away, and that student is now a caregiver for younger family members.

An awesome colleague tells me he wants to finish school to become a teacher but he can’t afford it, even though he works full time.

This week, it hit me hard, and it stuck. I tuned out, but Sarah heard the rest: a teacher watching a little girl dance, moving her hips, and say ‘the girls need to practice that move because that will be their life. That one, when she grows up, she’ll be good.”

God. It’s like a punch in the chest. It’s like salt on a wound, like water being thrown in your face.

A child.

A teacher.

A reality in Mozambique.

It just hurts. It hurts to know and understand. But I hesitate to share these things because they are so bad, and probably worse if you are a reader that isn’t here every day to experience the many joys and beautiful parts of this culture alongside these ugly, ugly parts. I share these struggles to get them off my chest before they eat away at me, like I know these things do. I share them to paint  a full picture.

Sometimes, I hear these things and I know I am powerless. But that day, looking at those little girls, I felt like I have a failed a bit. I don’t seek your pity. I chose this tough path, riddled with challenges and the frequent feeling of having failed. But I felt like I haven’t done as much as I could for girls here, with resources and access to programs like REDES, designed to educate girls about their rights and empower them for their future. And I felt like I haven’t done enough for girls here in educating BOYS here about how to respect girls and lift them up.

But, I am thankful for these painful moments, for knowing more, for the loss of unintentional ignorance that will inform my service for the year ahead, and pull at my heartstrings until I can’t help but do something.

The first smile this week, too, came along with knowing more and noticing more, little by little, the longer we are here.

There are things that I know happen here that I have still, after more than a year, not yet been exposed to on a personal level. One of these is the prevalence of unprotected, teen sex and early pregnancy. The kids at our school are a bit of an exception, I think. There aren’t pregnant girls attending class like at the other school in town. There isn’t even super obvious dating or flirting. They are expected to follow strict behavior rules set in place by the Brazilian nuns that run the school, and no one is talking to them about safe sex; teachers aren’t permitted to, and most of them are boarding school kids without older family members around that might talk to them about it.

So, although many PCV’s likely deal with these things much earlier on in service, it took a while for me. Earlier this week I saw a note being passed in class. I approached the student to take the note, and he held onto it with a clenched fist, a pleading and fearful look in his eyes.

Usually, the notes are nothing really: someone asking someone else to buy them food or share a snack, someone telling someone about homework or tests.

“No, teacher, no,” he said quietly, shaking his head at me.

Eventually, he gave me the note, crumpled and a bit soggy from his sweaty, nervous palms. I slipped it into my pocket to read after class.

And the note began:

‘Fica quieto. Aquela gaja não está gravida.’

‘Keep quiet. That girl isn’t pregnant.’

My mind raced:

What girl??

I know these things happen.

In the EIGHTH grade?? Even if 8th graders here are 15 and 16.

I know these things happen.

Which boy??

I know these things happen.

Shit.

I have to talk to them about it.

I know these things happen.

At the end of the day I pulled the 2 note-passers aside. I asked them who the girl was. They told me she goes to the other school. I asked who the boy was, if it was one of them. They shook their heads, unconvincingly, smirking.

“Ok…” I said, chomping on my gum to calm my nerves and summon clear Portuguese. “Well, do you know where to get free condoms if you need them?”

“No teacher. No! It’s not us. It’s a friend. It’s a friend from the other school,” they shook their heads at me, a bit frantically.

“Ok, ok, I believe you. I just want to talk to you,” I told them. “You are not in trouble. I will not tell anyone. I will not tell the nuns. You can say the truth to me, if you want to.”

“No teacher. It’s about a friend.”

….

“Ok. Are you sure?”

“Yes teacher.”

“Ok…well…does your friend know where to get free condoms if  he needs them?”

“No teacher.”

I told them where: the health center or Teacher Sarah’s house.

“Oh yah? I can get them at Teacher Sarah’s house? For free?” one of them asked, unknowingly revealing his fib about the friend.

“Yes. And please tell your friends. Ok…I don’t want to embarrass you guys, but this is important. You need to use them…every time. Because this,” I said, pointing to a part of the note that (I thought) was saying that pulling out is ‘a lie,’ “is a lie. You are right. It doesn’t always work.”

“Ok. Yes teacher.” Giggles. “Thank you teacher.”

I left them, wondering if I had done the right thing, or if I had done it in the right way. Did I just encourage them to have sex, without talking to them about the bigger picture, the dating, the respect, the importance? Or did I encourage them to make safer an action that they are clearly already doing? But still, without talking about the rest. I wasn’t sure.  I didn’t want to push too hard. It’s a fine line when there are only a select few people around that they can talk about this with if they need to.

The next day, Sarah said, they did come to her house, nervously telling her I had said they could. Like she does with so many boys in our town, Sarah gave them condoms and made them explain to her how to use them, correcting them when needed. If Sarah knows the boy, she usually asks who the girl is to know if the boy is dating someone steadily or not. But she didn’t want to scare these boys away from coming back if they needed to. It’s a fine line.

The following day, one of the boys asked Alex more about it, and Alex was able to open up a discussion among a group of boys about consensual sex, about always remembering that it is between 2 people and both people have to agree.

So, maybe, in the beginning, I couldn’t address the many complex parts of having sex as a teenager, or the many complex parts-many of which I still don’t fully understand- of having sex as a teenager in a culture that sees sex differently than my own. But we got there, together, eventually. Now, a few more boys in our town may not share the common view that ‘real men don’t use condoms,’ and they have a resource to make a good choice in a situation that they would most likely be in whether they had a condom or not.

I’ve learned that I am not one to dive right into things in Mozambique. I like to watch and listen, to get to know people before I talk about the tough stuff with them. For this, it’s slow-going here in Moz. I am not-maybe ever- going to address a large group of students about sex. Maybe I’m a wimp for this, but having to look at 50 adolescent faces and talk about sex doesn’t feel right in my gut. Where I find my successes, I’ve learned, is in planting seeds, in talking to a student that I’ve already known for months and have a relationship with, a student that I know, for a fact, other students will listen to when he talks even if they wouldn’t listen to me when I talk. In thinking about this, I can smile.

Alright. Enough about sex in Moz.

The next smile came from setting up a small ‘Global Gallery’ at school, the first use of postcards sent from friends and family for my postcard project. In the library at my secondary school I hung a map and attached various postcards and bits of information- in English- to their place on the map. I was excited to make this small display that can give our students a bit of exposure to other countries and to more conversational English.

So far, we have Mexico, Costa Rica, Germany, South Africa, Morocco, The Virgin Islands, and various parts of the United States represented in our Global Gallery. On Monday I will add Vietnam, Nepal, and Cambodia, (which arrived in the mail this weekend!) and keep expanding and changing the cards from there!

“It’s beautiful,” the librarian told me, as he stood there reading the information and explaining it to a student.

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Thanks to all who sent postcards to Mapinhane! You know who you are, you wonderful people 🙂

Now finally, as the school year here draws to a close, I find myself wanting to experiment with various projects so that I can tweak them and jump right in next year. One of these is holding open library hours at the primary school library. There are now 3 literacy sessions per week at the library for students that have difficulties reading, and we wanted to expand to give all students the opportunity to come in, read, and explore the books a couple of times a month. This week I took 4 of my more mature 8th graders to the library to help out with free-reading hours. We opened the library for a couple of hours on Saturday morning. Only 11 young students came in (all girls..hoorah!) and a few secondary school students. But still, it was a start, and I was beaming watching my 8th graders work with younger students, watching them peruse the books for a good fit and run with their own teaching ideas. And with class sizes of 50+ I relish opportunities to get to know them a bit better outside of school, to have conversations with them that allow me to better understand the life of a boarding school teenager in Mozambique.

 

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First off, try to ignore the pot leaf. This is Anita, Ismael, Gustavo, and Elca. They are intelligent, hard-working, eager to help and learn, and kind. They are a few of my students that make class worth going to and I loved watching them shine with younger students.

 

 

3 Smiles and A Struggle: Puppies, Pumpkin, Positive Behavior and My Dang Health

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This past weekend Alex and I and our sitemate Sarah headed inland to visit our good friend Sara’s site, Mabote. After waiting about 4 hours for a car to Mabote to arrive (somewhat typical, as it turns out), we finally got onto a chapa minibus and bumped along the dirt road 120 kilometers to Mabote. The time for the Sara/h’s departure from Mozambique is quickly approaching, and seeing Mabote was on our list of things to do before Sara leaves there. Our visit to Mabote was made extra special because Sara’s dog recently gave birth to 9 puppies. So, we got to spend the weekend snuggling with a puddle of 2-week-old puppies, as they were learning to walk and bark and open their eyes. And any weekend full of puppies is a weekend full of smiles!

 

 

More smiles came last weekend, in the form of my Grandma’s pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. While October is my favorite month for all its Fall glory, we used the last weekend of September to kick-off America Fall, and crack open one of the cans of pumpkin that my lovely mother brought from America when she visited. The months of September and October look a bit different here than they do at home. Summer is beginning, the school year is winding down, the leaves are….still green…always green, and there isn’t a pumpkin to be found. This time of year brings with it extra ‘saudades’- the Portuguese word for the feeling of missing something- and having a taste of home was just what I needed to start my favorite month off right.

 

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Last trimester, my students blindsided me just a bit with some pretty out of control behavior in the classroom. It was clear that the novelty of having a foreign teacher faded with the first trimester. So for this, the third trimester of the year, I have implemented a positive behavior plan and reward system for my students, and have found it to be a great tool for a large classroom. Each class period, my students can earn up to 5 points, 1 each for arriving on-time, being prepared, listening, working well with colleagues, and participating. In increments of 20, they can earn small prizes from me as a whole class. After the first few days of getting used to the new system, I have found that now my students police each other a bit more- if people are talking, I am no longer the first to tell them to quiet down and listen- and help each other out a bit more too- if someone forgot a pen, a colleague is quicker to lend them one so they don’t all lose their preparedness point. It’s a simple enough tactic and opens up a lot of opportunity for discussion about good behavior and for praise, which these students don’t get much of. I plan to start with this plan during first trimester next year. Today, my students passed their first increment of 20. The class ended with lots of cheers and lots of requests for candy as their prize.

 

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The struggle recently has been with my health. This is, perhaps, a contributing factor to my lack of writing for the past month. For one, I have been busy playing catch-up after taking multiple medical trips to the capitol in the past 2 months. Also, it’s just hard to be honest on a public platform about something that is personal and difficult, but that’s what these posts are for: to share the ups and downs. Sorry guys, I’ve been avoiding you. On purpose. My ongoing health issues have been one of the hardest and most frustrating parts of my Peace Corps Service thus far…and I haven’t wanted to talk about it.

I have struggled with having to miss a week of work at a time to go to the capitol for one 30 minute doctor’s appointment. I have struggled with members of my community asking why I have ‘disappeared,’ as Mozambicans like to phrase the question when you are out of town for any length of time..sometimes even just half a day. I have struggled with my students wondering what is wrong with me/ thinking I am gone so much because I am pregnant. I have struggled with getting used to the Mozambican healthcare system (What’s HIPPA? Please, shout my private medical info across the whole waiting room. And when I’m changing into that gown? Yessss…it’s a great opportunity to further stare at my whiteness..) and navigating it in Portuguese. I have struggled with communication breakdowns between me and my Peace Corps doctors. I have struggled with feeling like an extra-needy wife (Shout out to Alex, who has been my substitute teacher, shoulder to cry on, listening ear, and generally attentive husband) . I have struggled with not being able to exercise because of these issues. I have struggled to stay positive and remind myself that nothing is permanent, even when it really feels like it is. Oh, and I have struggled with the actual health parts of the health issue: bad medication, body probs, and continued frustration and disappointment at not being able to figure out the problem.

Maybe the reason I am able to write about it now is that I feel like I am coming out of it. Slowly but surely, things are getting better. I am returning to my routine; my body is starting to feel like itself again.

So, here’s to health, to hoping this struggle is ending, and to continuing to look for all the little smiles along the way, which seem too small to mention but, as it turns out, are really what get a girl through.

3 Smiles and A Struggle: Dia das Criancas, A New Path, Distributing Dictionaries and The Middle of the Night

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Here in Mozambique June 1 is Dia das Crianças, or Day of the Children. Colleagues and friends in town were curious to know when our Dia das Crianças is in the United States, and looked quite confused when I told them we don’t really have this day. The closest equivalent I could think of is Field Day, but even this is quite different.

I arrived at the primary school last Wednesday, June 1, for my usual library groups, suspecting that things at school would not be running normally because of the holiday. I was correct. Students and parents were drifting into the school yard, a bit later than the bell, carrying tupperware containers of special snacks, and looking excited. Children were moving desks out into the school yard, where later everyone would sit as groups of students performed.

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The Rights of the Child were written out and lined up outside of the classrooms. The right to study, the right to learn, and the right to know your parents were some that were worked into the cultural perfomances by the students.

I greeted the school director and some of the teachers in the school yard as they organized the students into two lines and began singing. Each occasion in Mozambique is celebrated with it’s own special song. This holiday began with a simple declaration of what it was, repeated over and over again, the shrill singing voices of young children waking up the quiet morning.

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I regret to inform you that my camera battery died after this, the first picture of all the kids lining up on their day.

“Um de Junho é o dia, é o dia, é o dia da criiiiaannnçca.”

June 1 is the day, the day, the day of the child, they sang as we marched down the road from the school to the town center.

The town center, or administrative post as it translates directly, is where all major celebrations take place. There we found many children and teachers already gathered, lining up to place bougainvillea flowers on the ‘praça dos herois,’ a special cement star that each town has at its administrative post to honor those who died in the war for independence.

After placing the flowers, we marched back to the school where the student cultural groups began to get organized and rehearse for their performance. During this time, moments passed of me feeling awkward, standing alone, trying and failing to chat with students and teachers until they all eventually had to run off to do other things. Then came Professora Matilde, one of my favorites at the primary school. Noticing that I was ‘staying isolated’ she made a special effort to come and chat with me, making me feel a smidge more comfortable amid the hustle and bustle of an unfamiliar holiday. She too eventually was called away, but it was then that I got to experience probably one of my most special moments in Mozambique so far. A student came to tell me that the director was calling me, and when I arrived to talk to him I was invited to plant a tree with him, some other staff members, and some students.

The planting of trees in celebration of a holiday is one of the little gems of Mozambique for me, and being asked to plant a cashew tree with Mozambican colleagues felt like an honor. Now there is a little something of me, left behind in Mapinhane to grow little by little over the years.

After the tree-planting, the celebration really got under way. I was asked to sit up front to watch as a cultural group from each grade performed song and dance for the rest of the school to watch. The top trimester 1 students from each grade, along with their mothers, were then honored in front of the school and given prizes. From here the celebration was progressing to academic olympics and athletic competitions.

I was not able to stay for the whole day, but left smiling and feeling a little more accepted into this community.

The next day Alex and  I set out to do a bit of exploring, which brought on some smiles after a difficult morning at school. A recent struggle, as discussed briefly in ‘Watching the Garden Grow,’ is the feeling of restlessness that has come over me here recently. I am used to having lots and lots of space to explore, and it was beginning to feel like we had seen all there was to see of Mapinhane. I knew this wasn’t quite true and that this feeling is brought on by the fact that we often go the same places and use the same one to get there. So last week we decided to walk north on the highway, away from Mapinhane and towards Vilanculos, with no destination in mind. We were walking just to walk, something we used to do a lot and don’t do so much here. Not far down the highway we saw a path leading off to the east and decided to take it. Here we discovered a quiet, calm walking loop that popped us out not far from our house. One of the difficulties of walking here, for me, is that sometimes I want my walk to be a time to clear my head and think in silence. It is nearly impossible here, as being out of the house means chatting with everyone you pass. This is a wonderful thing sometimes and a nuisance other times, depending on what I am seeking from a stroll. We are smiling to have found this new path, where we can walk in peace when we need to, think, and chat, and find a little bit of space to breathe outside of the house.

The final recent smile came in our Adult English Club last night. In May we received some donated dictionaries for our Adult English Club members. We set up a system with them that required them to come to three of the following four club meetings to receive a dictionary. Last night was our third class, so we distributed 12 dictionaries to people who had come the past three weeks in a row. These adults have been talking about and looking forward to receiving dictionaries for weeks, and it made me smile to see them smile….and, in some cases, even kiss their new dictionary. It is always encouraging to see people who are so eager to learn and excited about having this simple resource that opens up a world of knowledge for them.

This leads me nicely into my recent struggle, as Adult English Club was what was on my mind at 1:38 this morning. I was awoken by thoughts of this club and what we had done at our meeting yesterday. It wasn’t stressful…I was just thinking. The middle of the night has become my brain’s new favorite time to think, review, analyze, plan, scheme, ‘daydream,’ and, sometimes, stress. I have never been one to have difficulty sleeping, and this problem, which has been getting worse and worse since the end of April, is really starting to wear me down. Being awake for hours in the night has made some recent days a real struggle, and feeling like I don’t have the energy to do all the things I want to do is frustrating. Additionally, my tired mind is struggling to deal with all the little challenges that come up and I am wondering what is at the root of this problem. If nothing else, this struggle is helping me to realize what things in my life are essential for my wellbeing, and how important it is to keep up with these things. Our schedule here is different every day, and I have realized that in order to not feel ‘tossed about’ I need a couple things each day that happen at the same time, that are consistent and predictable. I have realized too that I have been neglecting some of the things that are best for me, like journaling and walking and doing yoga, things that are essential mental and physical outlets. I am challenging myself to take care of me, give myself permission for a break, and do the things that bring peace, no matter the country, language, job, or community that makes up my life.

 

 

3 Smiles and A Struggle: The First Trimester,What You Can’t Take Pictures Of, Simplicity, and The Gender Thing

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The Indian Ocean is perfect today: calm and windless, reflecting the low morning sun. We are in Vilanculos at the end of the first trimester, the beginning of the first short break. Yesterday, I put the wrong month on my hostel check-in form, proof, I suppose, that the time has gone so quickly I can hardly keep up.

Our first trimester has come and gone: 96 students, 68 class periods, 864 grades handwritten (once in pencil and over top again in pen, making a total of 1,728 grades handwritten), and 2 GIRLS that earned the highest marks in 8th grade.

One down, five more to go.

I am smiling about this, our first bit of work in a foreign school system, my first bit of work with kids older than 10, my first time leading a classroom. And all of the little successes along the way: students greeting me as the come into the classroom, students devouring children’s books in English, the kids who passed, and the kids who didn’t pass but improved.

I am happy too because ahead of us are 5 more opportunities, 5 more trimesters, to get creative with teaching, get to know the students, and learn about myself as a teacher.

Now, a few readers and friends and family members have requested that I put more pictures up on the blog. We are visual beings, I understand. But I must tell you that there are way more special things in Mozambique that cannot be captured in a picture than things that can be.

In my pictures, you have seen the beach in Vilanculos, the women in colorful capulanas, the singing and dancing at church, a few cute kids, our classrooms, our house, and even the food we eat.

But what I can’t show you are the conversations I can’t take pictures of. Alex and I went out to the market recently to buy one bell pepper, five pieces of bread, and 2 beers.

We first arrived at the small, open-air vegetable market. We have about ten stalls in our market, and about five women who are there consistently. Sometimes we buy tomatoes from one, onions from another, peppers from a third, cucumber from a fourth, and…..sorry, fifth market lady, that’s all the vegetable variety there is. The next time we’ll switch it up.

The market is a place to buy vegetables. It is also a place to be around the usually warm company of Mozambican women. And it is the place to practice our local language, Shitswa. On this particular day, we picked up our pepper and spent about half an hour, repeating Shitswa that was fired at us from the market ladies, getting corrected and repeating it again, taking in their good-natured laughter at our pronunciation of sounds we didn’t even know were words.

Now we can say ‘We are going home to work.’

If we can remember 🙂

Next we went around the corner to our friend Marcia’s shop. Marcia knows me well already; she knows that if it is too hot or if it is nearing a meal time and I am hungry, I probably won’t stick around to chat. These are times when my patience dwindles and my brain doesn’t do Portuguese.

But most days, we chat at least a little. Sometimes with Alex and sometimes without, Marcia and I have talked about relationships in Mozambique and relationships in America, health problems, her late Portuguese husband, what we are cooking, where we are going. I believe I may finally have convinced her that Alex absolutely will not hit me if I do something wrong.I have almost convinced her that Alex knows how to cook, and will survive if I don’t arrive at lunchtime to make him an egg sandwich. I have not yet convinced her that I do, indeed, like the capulana she bought me for my birthday. Before we started our Adult English Class, I would practice English with her almost every day, teaching her how to say, “My teacher disappeared and I had to go on learning alone because she didn’t come to teach me,” (presented to me in a letter that outlined my total desertion of my friend Marcia….”I saw you two days ago Marcia…”), “I will hit you. I will kill you,” (for when she goes to America and people are following her),”If you don’t want me, just say so,” (breaking up with a boyfriend), and the essentials like, “it is very hot today,” “see you tomorrow,” and “I like pineapple and tomato.”

The spectrum of conversation with Marcia alone nearly captures life here.

Ok, so, we were out for a pepper, beer, and bread right?

Forty five minutes later, we move from Marcia’s to the shop of a man deemed my Mapinhane PCV’s as Cheap Beer Guy.

Cheap Beer Guy isn’t much of a conversationalist. And I do need to capture Cheap Beer Guy in a picture. And I need to do this on the next day he is wearing his leopard-print, women’s, fitted tank.

Our final stop is at Celia’s for bread. Celia is interesting in that sometimes she is happy and smiling and wants us to help her name her niece and other days she looks past you as if you are an apparition and will say nothing other than, “Okay,” with a particularly high-pitched emphasis on the “O.”

But this week, she named her niece Jessica.

“O que e a significa de nome Jessica?” she asked us recently. What is the meaning of the name Jessica.

Google.

“Uma pessoa que pode ver o futuro,” Alex told her. A person who can see the future (a person who has foresight..but how the heck do you say that in Portuguese on the fly??)

Before we bought our bread, she let us know that Jessica was officially Jessica, then we talked about how her sister doesn’t know how to care for girl babies because she only has boys. You can teach her,we said, you have both. It is very different, she said. We think so too…Alex has only boys in his family and I have only girls…it is very different, we said.

Then there was the normal mid-conversation moment of silence.

“Have you cooked Matapa alone again yet?” she asked me.

I told her I hadn’t. I told her I wanted to learn to make beans next because when I make beans they are never as good as Mozambican beans. She said we will do that. I told her I would bring her sweet potato bread next time I make it.

With pepper, beer, and bread in hand, we wandered home an hour later, no pictures, no visuals to show or remember these conversations, these daily happenings that make-up our time in Mozambique.

So, we go about our days like this, passing large chunks of time chatting with people. It’s a simple thing. And when my sister recently asked me what we have been doing for fun lately, all I could think to tell her were all the other things we do here that are so simple, but make our life here full: we have been making a lot of good food, reading, talking to people around town, hanging out with the Sara/h’s.

Despite the daily challenges, life in Moz is pretty clear and simple. And for this, I smile a lot.

Now, daily challenges brings us to the recent struggle: The Gender Thing. In the last couple of weeks, I have started to notice how Alex and are sometimes treated differently here. Sometimes we walk around town and it is as if I am wearing an invisibility cloak, as all the men we pass neglect to greet me. Sometimes, male teachers continually question the way I am doing something, while leaving Alex alone to do the same exact thing. Sometimes he knows about meetings and school procedures that no one told me about. And it’s not just on my side, as a woman. Whether or not he struggles with it, Alex gets different treatment too sometimes: no one believes that he, as a man, can cook and take care of himself, for example.

We have heard this happens to married couples here and we have certainly heard about gender inequity in Mozambique. There are also some justifications. For example, maybe males in town think it is inappropriate to talk to another man’s wife.

And of course, there are some comforts. Most of the males we interact with, don’t treat me much differently than they treat Alex. With them, as well as our female friends, we have gotten into good conversations, shared meals, and trusted with our questions at shcool.

With our first 5 months at site behind us, we go into our break with all of this on our mind and so much more ahead. For the next week, we are on to the big cities for some conferences, hot showers, and delicious food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Smiles and A Struggle: Donut-Making, Palm Sunday, The Library and Feeling Far Away

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We must begin with donuts. And Sarahs. This past weekend me and Alex along with our sitemate Sarah (Becks) and our other PCV friend Sarah (SG) set out on a grand Moz culinary adventure: donut-making, all from scratch of course. This delicious idea was inspired by funfetti frosting that was sent to me from my friend Sarah (America…?)  for my birthday, along with cake mix and other birthday surprises. We spent weeks gathering the ingredients, some of which we don’t see very often, like margarine and powdered sugar. Then, in assembly line fashion, we made a whole lot of donuts. We made the dough and let it rise for an hour, rolled it and donuted it, rolled it and donuted it, rolled it and donuted it, until all the dough was donuted, then we let the donuts rise for another 45 minutes, fried them, and set about topping them with glaze, funfetti frosting, or cinnamon and sugar. Our endeavors were successful and our hard work was rewarded. After working so hard, this indulgent treat was even tastier than anything we could have bought. So many smiles, and even more yummy sounds. Check back soon for this donut recipe and modifications for Moz!

Earlier last week one of our students invited Alex and I to attend the Palm Sunday church service, where a group of students would be singing, dancing, and drumming as part of the service. The Mozambican church service followed by the traditional American treat-eating made for a confusing day of mixed culture, but a very satisfying Sunday. The church service began down the road from church, where a procession of people walked, singing gently and waving their palm fronds. After stopping in various places along the way to pray, the group gathered, much to our relief, outside of the cement church for a service under the trees. Anytime that something important happens here under the shade of the trees, I am reminded that this is something small I love about being in Mozambique.  A simple archway had been made, and a stage set for the pastors. Both were decorated with woven palms and purple bougainvillea. A group of our students began the service with dancing and singing. The people then settled on benches, chairs, and mats on the ground. An older student directed others to bring us a bench, and we were seated. A kind man approached me, as I was twisting my palm leaves into a messy weave, and told me in English that he wanted to teach me how to weave the leaves. As the bulk of the church service took place I followed the lead of this new friend, smiling to myself at his whispered encouragement. “Good. Yes, like that.” Feeling guilty for not paying attention I looked around, only to find many busy hands working their palm leaves in much the same way. The service concluded with more song and dance from our student in the local language, Shitswa; I love church in languages that I don’t understand. Something about the manner in which people worship is much more powerful to me than the words being said. A new friend, a steady breeze, and joyful songs made me smile during this, our second visit to church in Mapinhane.

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The final thing that has been giving me lots of smiles lately is my time at the primary school library. It took a few weeks to get a schedule organized and start having groups of students, but now that we are up and running, the sessions are one of the things I look most forward to during my week. The library was started by a volunteer 3 education groups before me (Moz 19) and continued by my predecessor, Sarah (surprising name, I know), from Moz 21. I am starting now with 4 groups of 3rd and 4th grade students that have difficulties with reading and literacy. Each week, we read a book and then do a literacy activity related to the book. I read the same book 3 weeks in a row with a different activity, and have found this repetition to engage the students because they can recall parts of the book from the week before. Every fourth week will be time for the students to read and explore books independently in the library. The students have been so engaged and happy during the sessions, and it really puts a smile on my face when I hear them leave the library practicing what we learned or when I am told that their mothers were wondering what they were doing in the library and wanting them to go more often because they came home talking about it. It is very uncommon for students here to have books at school or home, or to have much, if any, access to reading material anywhere, especially for pleasure-reading. Being exposed to books is a special treat for these kids, and I can tell every time I go into the library or pull a book out of my purse to read in the schoolyard.

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My early morning walk across town to the library gives me time to play with preschoolers on their way to school.

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The entrance to the primary school in Mapinhane.

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My first group at the library!

 

Now, 6 months into our 27 months in Moz, the struggle lately has been the start of feeling far away and disconnected from people back home. The time difference makes it challenging to find a good time for phone conversations. And the lack of in-person connection is becoming harder. Even when I lived in the U.S. it was not uncommon to go weeks or even months without talking to some friends; most of my friends are spread out all over the country. But then we would get together or have one really long, satisfying conversation and I was reminded of the strength of our friendship. Here, I know that those strong relationships still exist, but now I just have the ‘months with no contact’ without the eventual get together that renews the relationship. It is clear already that we will come out of Peace Corps with a number of new relationships, but I am beginning to miss my people from home more and more! Texts and emails go unanswered and the time between now and our next get together seems to be an eternity. So, I am going to begin making a more conscious effort to schedule phone calls, email people more often, and do anything I can on my end to stay in touch. It is an odd and scary thing, this realization that there really is a whole physical world between me and so many of the people I love. And it is hard to feel that I can’t give the support I want to give and am not feeling all the support I am craving right now. That being said, I can only believe that strong friendships will survive this time and distance, we will pick up where we left off, and new friendships will grow as well.

So, friends, if you are reading this, know that I love you, am thinking of you and missing you here in Moz!

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Hidden beauty 🙂

3 Smiles and A Struggle: Secondary Projects, Student Progress, Food for Cultural Exchange, and Misunderstandings

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Now that we are settling into our school schedules, we are starting to think about some secondary projects. These are projects that Peace Corps Volunteers do outside of their regular work schedule. There are a lot of opportunities for Peace Corps sponsored/organized secondary projects that volunteers all over the country, and world, participate in. These include Grassroots Soccer (Health education through sports drills, more or less), REDES (A group where girls can learn about entrepreneurship, health, and education and attend an annual conference), JUNTOS (A group for girls and boys that allows students to learn about HIV/AIDs, domestic violence, gender equality, etc. through expressive forms , like music, dance, writing, playing games, and attend a conference), English Theater (A theme-based theater club that culminates in regional competitions each year), Science Fair, and Library and Early Grade Literacy projects. Secondary projects can also be anything that volunteers and their communities dream up, based off of community need. These include things like English Clubs for students and adults, workout clubs, craft clubs, teacher workshops, health workshops…let your imagination run wild! The third type of secondary projects are the ones that involve building things like science labs, computer labs, and libraries.

So, this past week there were some smiles as we started to organize and plan some secondary projects. First, our sitemate, Sarah, and I carried out our first Adult English Club meeting in Mapinhane. The three of us will be doing this together, but Alex was in Maputo so was not able to come to our first meeting. Although we only had 5 adults come, it was a start, and I am excited to start providing a forum for adults to start practicing English, as many in our community have expressed interest in learning. In addition to forming an English Club for adults, next week we will have our first English Club meeting for students. I am excited to be able to practice English with students at a slower pace and in a more fun setting. By the time English Theater preparation starts in May, we hope to be able to have some strong English Club members that will want to audition. We also chatted with one teaching colleague this week that has worked with REDES groups before and one who has worked with JUNTOS groups before. They are both eager to start the groups again, and had great ideas about how the groups can be organized. We will probably start forming these groups slowly over the next couple of weeks and will have the chance to attend trainings next month. Their enthusiasm and ideas made me smile! So, although we aren’t spending hours upon hours in the classroom, our time is slowly filling up little by little as projects emerge. Teaching here is a challenging and interesting experience, but secondary projects give us a really unique opportunity to get to know our students and community in more varied environments and to give them a chance to be exposed to new information. Although all of these projects may not remain steady through our two years of service, we are enthusiastic about all of the possibilities right now.

In the teaching realm, last week was filled with a plethora of struggles, as I expect to be the norm for quite some time/forever. But, there were some reasons to smile too. I have started offering tutoring hours during the week and am pleased at the number of students that come to me with specific questions during this time. It is very rare for students here to ask questions during class, but I am glad to know that they feel comfortable asking during tutoring. Hopefully this articulation will carry over into the classroom eventually! I was also really excited to see that my students earned, on average, a score 3 times as high on their first quiz as on their initial English assessment, which was made up of similar questions. It was encouraging to see that at least some of the information is sinking in. Additionally, I am really pleased with their progress in participating in class and trying activities that are weird and uncomfortable for them. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a looooonnggg way’s to go in the classroom, but it’s nice to have at least a few little glimmers of sunshine.

The third smile this week was from our ongoing cultural exchange via food. Sorry if I keep bringing this up…our lives kind of revolve around food here and we spend a lot of time on ‘labor of love’ meals that we like to share with friends. This week it was dinner with our neighbor Cristovão, who you may remember from this post about great neighbors. He had been asking us to cook “fajitas” with him once it was avocado season. Well, here we are in avocado season, perfecting our chip-making skills, and eating as much guacamole as can be had. Sidenote: because avocado is aGUACAte in Spanish and a type of sauce is MOLE, we translated to Portuguese, in which avocado is aBACAte and sauce is MOLHO…behold the Portuguese word for guacamole: Bacamolho, coined by us. Anywho, Alex was lucky enough to find three different colors of peppers on his way back from Maputo last week, and we knew it was fajita week! We labored roasting a whole chicken on the charcoal stove, making scrumptious tortillas from scratch, smooshin bacamolho, and cooking peppers and onions. The meal was a success, the food exchange will continue with teaching Cristovão to make tortillas, per his request, and we got to have good, long conversations with him. The only downfall: shame on some previous PCV who clearly called a burrito a fajita, as Cristovão told us that the other fajitas PCV’s made him didn’t have peppers and onions. That was a burrito. A fajita isn’t a fajita without peppers and onions. Doi. However, I realize that real fajitas do not have bacamolho/gucamole…but since his fajita was, after all, a burrito, his request to make and eat this food centered around avocado 🙂

As noted, there were a number of frustrations at school last week. There are a lot of small misunderstandings and confusion here that adds up to be really exhausting. I am not airing these frustrations to paint Mozambique in a bad light, or to complain. I did not expect Peace Corps or life in Mozambique to be easy or make sense, and for all of the things that don’t make sense to me, know that they do make sense to Mozambicans. It is not a question right now of systems that are right or wrong…just very, very different. I am sharing my confusion here as honest struggles and as a real example of how life here works. The first of this downslide of frustrations was when I went to the primary school library- my main secondary project- Tuesday, only to find that the boss had still not made a schedule for the library, as he had promised three weeks in a row. We love that stress is practically non-existent here, but sometimes it would be nice if it existed just a little bit for the sake of being accountable and getting things done. Solution: I will go today and sit down with him to make the schedule. Hopefully. The next day I was approached by two students who had missed a quiz I gave 6 days earlier and wanted to know if they could make it up. The first frustration was that they had not approached me about this before 6 days had passed. We had not been taking attendance yet this year because class lists and registration was not being finalized until March 3, so I didn’t know who had missed the quiz and assumed (NEVVVERRRRR do it…) that students who had missed would come tell me. Wrong. So, I wanted to know if they had an excused absence. In America I would go to the office and ask the secretary. I went to the office and asked the secretary. There was fumbling and shuffling and searching for class lists. And lots of fast, quiet, Portuguese. Then a Pedagogical Director- kind of like a Vice Principal- was called in to help. I explained. He told me to check the attendance book. I said we had been told not to do attendance and I wasn’t wondering if they were absent, but if it was an excused absence. He said to ask the students. I said I had, but how was I supposed to know if they were telling the truth about being sick. He said to ask the dorm leaders. I said ok, but really doubted that they would remember whether one out of hundreds of children in their care was sick 6 days earlier. Solution: I went home as fast as I could-home is kind of the safe zone where no frustrations can enter- and made a plan for explaining missed quizzes to students better and keeping better track. The next day I collected homework on a subject that we had been slowly going over for the whole week. I began to grade and realized that very few of the students had understood the concept, many did not follow the directions, and some did not copy the ‘word for word’ part of the assignment down fully. I was frustrated that they hadn’t told me it wasn’t clear in class, even though I asked repeatedly. I was frustrated that directions were so difficult to follow and that it was most likely at least partially my fault for not writing them in a way that made sense to the students. For example, I often say ‘completar’ (complete) or ‘escrever respostas’ (write answers), only to find out that the word that makes sense to them for homework is ‘responder’ (respond) to the questions. To me, these mean the same thing. To them, it causes the whole assignment to be confusing. Solution: Grade in small batches, give good feedback, explain the feedback in detail as this is not something they are used to receiving, explain that a star next to an answer means it was good as stars next to good answers are a new concept, try to rework directions for the next homework and explain more than once in more than one way, and wait a long time…until at least one person asks a question about it. So, that was three days of going about normal work business here, and although all of these things were fleeting, they were frustrating and tiring. I was so happy that school was not in session Thursday, as this was the day for finalizing registration and class lists. I didn’t feel like I could take another day of confusion about the school system! Four days off and some good food and company allowed me to regain my patience to take on a new week at school in Moz.

I know that even though some of these things will start to make sense the longer we are here, new confusing things will crop up. So, yes it was a struggle with the school system last week. But that is not going to go away. So, the bigger struggle was with attitude and patience, in choosing how to deal internally with things that are frustrating in my environment. Because I am a human these things are not always on point, of course, but each time I encounter a frustration I know that I also encounter an opportunity to choose how I react and what my next steps are. Sometimes I am happy with my response. Sometimes I’m not. So, it will be great for my worldview when I come out of Peace Corps understanding how the school system works in another country. But it will be even better for my life skill set when I come out of Peace Corps having strengthened my ability to react gracefully in the face of ongoing frustration.

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Sunset after a Sunday soccer game.

3 Smiles and Some Struggles: Work To Do, Exchanging Treats, Love Comes in the Mail, and Everyday Small Struggles

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Finally, we have a job to do .And we can smile about that. We are two weeks into school now, and after two slow months at site, it finally feels like we have a purpose.

It’s not correct to say that we are finally doing what we came here to do, because our reasons for coming here were many, and they happen on a daily basis: learning a new language, experiencing life in a different culture, offering our skills and learning new skills, testing ourselves.

But it’s a happy, happy thing to have finally started the job we came to do. It’s nice to be teaching, getting into a routine, and organizing projects. Although we don’t teach all day every day, or even close, it’s nice to finally have a bit more structure to our days, meet our students, and start learning how to teach here.

Look for a post later this week about school in Moz!

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The morning meeting on our first day of school.

My second set of small smiles comes from a magenta bowl with a clear lid: food exchanges with a couple of my female friends in town. I bring a bowl with a peanut butter cookie and it is returned to me full of freshly toasted cashews. I bring the bowl with some peanut butter, and set up a cooking lesson with Celia.  I make matapa independently at home and take some to Celia; her empregada (house helper woman) gives the bowl back full of the ‘folha de fejão,’ bean plant leaves, that she has cooked in the same manner as matapa. And next I will bring the bowl with a homemade cinnamon roll from the weekend. I love cooking and am happy that is has become an opportunity for cultural exchange.

The third recent smile is from receiving a plethora of care packages that were sent over the last 2 months and arrived all at once within the last 2 weeks. Into our hands came cards and chocolate, birthday wishes and high quality, non-perishable food that I didn’t even know I missed. As our time away from home grows, these little reminders are increasingly joyful. In fact, if you want to send something, please do:

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Vilanculos, Mozambique.

 

 

 

 

 

Now, we come to the struggles. I think one of the reasons that the writing of this particular edition of 3 Smiles and a Struggle has been delayed is because life here has begun to feel more normal, which means the struggles are starting to feel more normal too. We are getting into the swing of things and starting to feel content, but the fact is that every day here presents a new challenge. None of them are necessarily bigger than the others. None of them are monumental.But they all play a role in our life here, and they are all considered pretty average and normal challenges. And so I have debated which to write here, which is more worthy of talking about.

I have wondered if I should tell you about the Portuguese struggle in the first weeks of school. It is becoming easier to speak freely as I begin to use my Portuguese more and more. But now there is more at stake too: do my 90 8th grade students understand a word I am saying to them?

I am teaching English, but we don’t speak much English in the classroom yet, save for practice with the subject we are learning that day. I give directions, and even examples, in English first and then in Portuguese, for clarity. But I don’t know that the words coming out of my mouth in either language are all that clear to my students at this point. Add to this the fact that students here are not accustomed to speaking up when they don’t understand things, and what I’m left with is a lot of wait time after everything I say, a lot of trying to convince them to ask for clarification, a lot of repeating, and a lot of hoping for the best.

All I can say is that teaching in another language is much, much different than speaking in a different language about weather, food, and what life is like in the United States; Yes, I wanted people to understand what I was saying to them in town these past two months, but now I need people to understand what I am saying to them in the classroom. Exhausting as this is, it does not feel like a huge point of stress. I am trying my best to improve as fast as I can, and I realize that this is just part of the process.

Then, I have wondered if I should tell you about the funny struggle of running out of cooking gas. Last week we ran out of cooking gas. When that happens, we have to go to nearby Vilanculos, about an hour away, to return our empty tank and buy a full tank. But every so often the whole town of Vilanculos runs out of full tanks of cooking gas, as is the case right now. So, with the help of our amazing sitemate, I hauled the tank to Vilanculos, looked for gas, found none, arranged to leave the tank at our favorite hotel until Vil gets more tanks in, and got to work getting creative in the kitchen. I realize that having to wait a month or so for more cooking gas would be unheard of in the States, but here, it’s normal, and it’s just not a point of great stress. So, until further notice, we will continue to eat care package non-perishables, cook fried eggs on our weakly functioning electric burners (they don’t have enough forca for a whole meal), roast peanuts over a charcoal stove to smoosh our own peanut butter, cook noodles by soaking them in boiling water from the electric teapot, and make as many varied meals out of charcoal stove rice and beans as possible: burritos (yay for avocado season : +1 smile!), coconut lime rice and beans, bean burgers, rice and beans with whatever vegetables can be found…TBD.

Lastly, I’ve wondered if I should bring up the recent heat wave, which honestly probably has been the biggest struggle for me the last couple weeks and has been the hardest of these things to not feel agitated by. We thought we were through the worst of the summer season here but, as we lay in our sweat puddles on our cement floor, trying not to move, we realize we were very, very wrong. We have had more than one day recently of 100+ degree weather. When this happens my body and brain is so exhausted; productivity ceases after noon, and is replaced by mild heat coma/ laying on the floor, sweating. A good night’s sleep is nearly impossible; I found myself getting up in the middle of the night last night and bringing a frozen water bottle back to be to snuggle with (freezer: +1 smile). Additionally, in this kind of heat Portuguese absolutely cannot be spoken or understood. Recent heat-induced language blunders: telling someone at the bank that I wanted to check my caldo (MSG ‘flavor’ packet that Mozambicans love to add to dishes) instead of my saldo (account balance…) and telling a driver that he cannot exit in that direction (pointing) because the portador (gatekeeper) is too small, instead of the portão (gate). And lastly, just staring blankly while my good gal friend in town laughs right at me about how I can’t speak Portuguese in the heat.

Truth.

As I mentioned, none of these struggles feel like great points of stress here. But I know that in my home culture if I was doubting my ability to communicate with a group of students I would feel immensely guilty and worried. I know that if I had to wait a month to cook in the manner I am used to, I would feel annoyed. And if people laughed in my face when I tried to speak to them, I would feel super embarrassed and probably never want to be their friend again.

But here, all of these things are normal everyday occurrences, and the endless calm and patience of the Mozambicans we are surrounded by infuses these situations. So, I recognize these struggles, but it’s getting easier to forget about feeling guilty and worried and instead work toward improving. It’s not so hard to choose not to waste my energy being annoyed about the gas situation, as I cannot do anything to change it. And it’s better to just agree with my laughing friend instead of bumbling through ‘heat Portuguese’ in explanation, if for no other reason than getting back home to lay in front of my fan and cool my boiling brain.

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No matter what the day brings, it always ends with this view from the back yard. Photo courtesty of Alex Romanyshyn.